Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 36min
Across the withering forests, squalid villages, and draughty castles of 14th century Sweden, there is resounding silence. It echoes through Ingmar Bergman’s sparse minimalism, emerging not from the peasants who dance and sing as distraction from their grim circumstances, nor from the religious zealots who preach portentous warnings of Judgment Day. It doesn’t even come from Death himself, who stalks the land and takes lives without discrimination. This silence belongs to an absent God, whose apparent withdrawal from His own creation brings omens of an unavoidable reckoning. Drawn from the Book of Revelations, the verse which opens this meditation on faith sets the scene for Bergman’s theological questions, leading us towards the end times with a pained longing for answers.
“And when the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour… And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”
From this biblical quote also comes the title Bergman gives his film, The Seventh Seal, marking its events as the final catalyst for the Apocalypse. Seemingly every character from the cynics to the Christians acknowledges the dismal shift in the air too, as they spread rumours of supernatural occurrences and fearfully evade the Black Death.
It isn’t hard to see why The Seventh Seal held immense cultural significance at the time of its release, speaking to audiences of 1957 who anticipated a nuclear winter during the early years of the Cold War. From a spiritual perspective though, it connects even more distinctly to Bergman’s own repressed upbringing as the son of a strict Lutheran minister. This did not inspire a rebellious attitude in him, but rather an instinct for curiosity, prompting him to search for traces of God in a world simultaneously obsessed with and disconnected from His holy virtues.
It makes sense then that Bergman gives his own philosophical quandaries in The Seventh Seal to disenchanted knight Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow with intelligence, sorrow, and a desperate glimmer of hope. Having returned from the Crusades, Block is no stranger to serving the Catholic Church, and yet he has not found the spiritual fulfilment that was promised. “My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning,”he laments, “But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.” And yet where can one find such a purpose, if not from God?
This paradox underlies Block’s journey in The Seventh Seal, driving him to seek wisdom from a mad woman who claims to have consorted with the Devil, as well as a priest who, as he eventually discovers, is in fact Death in disguise. When the knight first meets this mysterious, pale-faced entity on a rocky shoreline, he is told his time is up, and yet he is not ready. “My flesh is afraid, but I am not,” he confesses, before challenging Death to a game of chess – the stakes being his own life. Bergman pensively returns to this rich allegorical conceit throughout the film, with Death outsmarting Block at virtually every turn, and as such a timer is effectively placed on the knight’s uncertain quest to find meaning before his adversary checkmates him.
Bergman’s indelible iconography is woven all through The Seventh Seal, and yet it is this infamous image of von Sydow challenging Death which effectively escaped its niche corner of world cinema and spread into mainstream culture at large. Though Bergman clearly identifies with the doubtful knight, perhaps he also sees a bit of himself in the church painter, who the cynical squire Jons finds illustrating a large fresco depicting the Dance of Death. “I’m only painting things as they are. Everyone else can do as he likes,” he explains, handing the power of interpretation over to viewers of his work.
For as long as the artwork remains in Bergman’s hands though, he is a perfectionistic craftsman, painstakingly shaping his blocking and lighting into expressions of profound wonder, and instilling his austere imagery with a razor-sharp depth of field. In close-ups and mid-shots, he studies the expansive emotional range that crosses his ensemble’s faces as they confront their impending deaths with terror, confusion, anger, and awe. In wides as well though, he imposes a stark, greyscale beauty on his medieval scenery, confining these characters to barren lands upon which nothing fruitful can grow.
Everywhere that Block goes with his steadily growing band of companions, a disconcerting rot eats away at the minds and bodies of the common people. In one scene that has taken root in pop culture (most prevalently through Monty Python and the Holy Grail) a comical performance by jesters is interrupted by a procession of God-fearing flagellants and monks, carrying a giant cross through the village streets and whipping themselves as self-punishment. Bergman keeps his camera close to the ground as they trample over us, chanting their mournful ‘Dies Irae’ motif which continues to weave into the score like a harbinger of doom.
At this moment, an astonishingly composed cutaway to the expressions of Block, Jons, and a mute girl they have picked up reveals their utter disdain, staggering their faces into the background. Bergman then follows up this shot with his camera tracking along a line of villagers, one by one kneeling to the ground in fearful reverence. The sermonising preacher who takes the stage effectively shifts attention away from the troupe of performers entirely, though in case we are driven to sympathise with any of them, Bergman also draws our attention to the affair their leader Skat is conducting with the wife of the town blacksmith. Through local cheaters, thieves, and self-righteous evangelists, moral debasement runs deep in this setting, and The Seventh Seal never fails to match such austerity with an equally severe visual style.
Each time we return to scenes with naïve actor Jof and his family though, small sparks of levity quietly emerge in this story. His glimpse of a woman walking with her child may be brushed off as a hallucination, but he is convinced that they represent the Mother Mary and an infant Jesus. His other visions aren’t so easily dismissed, and even appear prophetic in nature – after all, he seems to be the only one outside of Block who can see Death playing their fatal game of chess. Our wandering knight’s brief picnic with Jof’s family on a hillside is the first moment of serenity that he finds in his journey, and as they share in wild strawberries to the peaceful sound of a lyre, Block starts to uncover the meaning of life he has pursued for so long.
And therein lies one of Bergman’s most significant symbols of The Seventh Seal, turning Jof, Mia, and their baby into surrogates of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Humanity’s salvation does not lie in dour warnings of doom, self-indulgence, or existential searches for purpose, as Block discovers, but in the birth and nourishment of new life. As for the one meaningful deed he wishes to accomplish, it presents itself as a selfless sacrifice during his last few rounds of chess. A clumsy toppling of the board may seem to his opponent a desperate way to try and escape his fate, and yet it is the first time Death has truly been outwitted. Not even he can comprehend total self-sacrifice as a strategic move, as he is distracted by Block’s deliberate blunder long enough for Jof and his family flee unnoticed.
“When we meet again, you and your companions’ time will be up,” Death informs his prey before departing, and indeed as Block finally returns home to his castle with his fellow travellers, a quiet recognition that they will not see the stormy night through settles over them. Recalling the peaceful meal he shared with Jof and his family, Block and his fellowship partake in a last supper together, while his wife reads out from the same chapter of Revelations which opened the film. Death enters the room silently but powerfully, his presence only revealed to us by the slow turning of faces towards a point just behind the camera, each one precisely arranged across the frame in expressions of disbelief. Only Block refuses Death eye contact, instead choosing to look up to the heavens and pray in the background. The window of light that Bergman frames right behind his head is the perfect finishing touch to this immaculate composition.
Is it a flash of transcendent wonder which grants the mute girl Christ’s words as he hung on the cross, “It is finished,” or is her proclamation the result of some divine miracle, ending God’s crushing silence? There is beauty in this ambiguity, and all throughout his film Bergman deliberately balances such interpretations on a knife’s edge, denying us the comfort of conventional explanations. The Seventh Seal is a film of thought-provoking symbolism, but there should be no understating its achievement of screenwriting either, effectively reframing the classical hero’s journey within an expedition of biblical and philosophical significance. Its poetic dialogue too effortlessly flows from one existential contemplation to the next, delivering the sort of lines one might find quoted by theologians and sceptics alike. Especially as the surviving Jof spies their tiny silhouettes performing the Dance of Death atop a hill, he describes their movements with lyrical eloquence, allegorically detailing the transition from one life to the next.
“The strict master Death bids them dance. He wants them to hold hands and to tread the dance in a long line. At the head goes the strict master with the scythe and hourglass. But the Fool brings up the rear with his lute. They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands, while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.”
Perhaps those more religiously minded characters might view the parting clouds and fresh sunlight as a sign of Christ’s second coming. Bergman would never be so obvious though. The Seventh Seal stands among history’s greatest pieces of theological cinema, not for the moral lessons it imparts, but the questions it provokes, cutting to the core of our existential search for something larger than ourselves. Maybe there is also salvation in the opposite though – an acceptance of the “unknowing,” allowing one to graciously hand themselves over to the great equaliser of Death. Bergman remains torn between faith and doubt right to the end of his grand medieval fable, though only a director with as keen an eye for spiritual iconography as him could build both ideals to such a tender, hopeful resolution, recognising their essential place in humanity’s ever-expanding self-awareness.
The Seventh Seal is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.